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Valentine’s Finesse

  by Richard Pavlicek

Until recently little was known of St. Valentine, a Christian martyr who lived in third-century Rome. His persecution and death in 269 A.D. was believed to be a direct result of religious beliefs, but newly discovered tablets near the Tiber River shed further light on this mystery. Evidence now points to his bridge exploits, which were way ahead of his time and angered his peers.

Consider the following tablet. As South, Valentine responded 1 S to his partner’s opening bid and was duly raised. Rather than settle for an easy game, he next made a tactical bid of 3 C to confuse everyone (partner included) then leaped to slam.

Tablet IV
Both Vul
S A 7 6
H 3 2
D K Q 5 4
C A 5 4 3

All Pass
1 D
2 S
4 C
1 S
3 C
6 S
S K 5 4
H J 9 8 7 6
D 9
C 9 8 7 6
Table S 3 2
H Q 10 4
D J 10 8 7 6
C K Q 10
6 S South
Lead: D 9
S Q J 10 9 8
H A K 5
D A 3 2
C J 2

West led his singleton diamond. Valentine studied the dummy briefly then spread his hand. “I claim,” he announced, “finessing in two suits and squeezing East in the other two; simple hand.”

The opponents and kibitzers were bewildered. Even with the S K favorably placed, Valentine’s statement made no sense. Almost in unison West and East asked, “What’s this about finessing in two suits?”

“My dear pigeons,” Valentine resumed, “as a patron of love, I would love to explain it, but my eloquence would be wasted on deaf ears. Suffice it to say that my brilliance is beyond your comprehension.”

West studied the layout carefully. “The only finesse I see is in spades, and I would not cover with my king, so you cannot ruff a heart. I see only 11 tricks, and I don’t think partner can be squeezed.”

Ruff a heart? You make me laugh. I didn’t gain my stature by plebeian ruffs; I play with finesse. It is true that East can’t be squeezed by ordinary technique — but I don’t waste my time with ordinary technique. First I take the heart finesse.”

West was dumbfounded. “What heart finesse?”

“Open your eyes! I win the D K and lead the H 2; if East plays the four I finesse the five. If East instead plays the 10 or queen, I win it and finesse later.”

“So what?” West rebutted. “I win a heart trick.”

“Fine, take it! The contract is six not seven. I fully intend to give you a heart trick, and finessing the five is merely a tempo reducto averto. This probably flies over your head, so just trust me; I’m a genius.”

“So I win the heart and lead a club,” West argued.

“Too late! That’s where my shrewd bidding paid off; only a pigeon would believe my 4 C bid. I win the C A, cross to my hand with a heart and finesse and draw trumps. The last six cards will be:

S win all S
D Q 5 4
C 5 4 3
H J 9 8
C 9 8 7
Table S
D J 10 8
North leadsS 10 9
D A 3

“Next I cross to my hand with the D A and lead my last two spades and the H A. East is squeezed in the minors, and I win the rest. If you don’t see it, perhaps a kibitzer will explain it to you very slowly.”


St. Valentine’s body was found two days later in the Tiber River. Despite a marble slab bound to his ankles, death was ruled accidental by the Roman Consul (most of whom were bridge players). In lieu of flowers and in memory of his heart finesse on this deal, many Romans sent his family parchment cards with a heart symbol in red ink. And so it came to be.

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© 1999 Richard Pavlicek